In recent weeks I have been working on a project that has led me to chat with a bunch of business and government folk that were prominent in 1980s/1990s New Brunswick. In all cases the conversation eventually got around to Frank McKenna. It always does. Thirty years ago this month, Frank was elected as Premier and 20 years ago yesterday he stepped down as Premier – keeping a promise not to stay in power more than 10 years.
I have written a lot over the years about McKenna. He reined in public spending. He championed New Brunswick across Canada and beyond. Who can forget the stories of taxi cab drivers in Toronto invoking his name or of him hustling CEOs on Team Canada trade missions much to the consternation of other Premiers. In general, he spent a lot of time trying to convince New Brunswickers that we were just as good as any other Canadian.
In many ways his post-Premier career has been even more influential. He hobnobs with Bill Clinton and other global leaders. He is highly visible on many national issues. His perch at the TD Bank has provided a platform to continue championing New Brunswick.
What is his legacy? It’s hard to say. The fact that Mckenna is a top 100 baby name in Canada for girls may or may not have anything to do with the guy called “the tiny, perfect Premier” back in the day.
There are certainly few people in New Brunswick who were adults in the 1980s and 1990s who don’t have a developed opinion about him one way or the other – I would say mostly a good opinion although I run into people who are still bitter about amalgamations, forced RCMP, etc. and even some who continue to believe he was too focused on attracting industry and not enough on helping poor, old NB small businesses.
My only beef with McKenna – stated at the time and many times since – was that he didn’t leave much infrastructure behind when he left. McKennaism wasn’t embedded in government – not political or bureaucratic. Bernard Lord actually ran on a platform that repudiated McKenna’s economic development program talking about a “made in New Brunswick” solution instead (ironically, of course, Lord benefited from even more call centre jobs than McKenna as most firms attracted here in the mid-late 1990s only reached full expansion by the early 2000s).
This is the challenge with the cult of personality. It can be a wonderful tool for change at a moment in time but can lead to an ongoing overhang – every Premier since McKenna has been compared to him – and not favourably. One Premier told me he was dogged by McKenna’s shadow in office. Fair enough. U.S. Presidents get the same treatment. All Republican Presidents get compared to the Gipper.
We should learn the lessons of Frank McKenna: 1) There is value in having a determined, charismatic leader during times when big changes are needed; 2) New Brunswickers can and should be #NBProud; 3) New Brunswickers can compete and win when it comes to attracting global firms; 4) true political success happens when change is embedded into the system – which did not happen with McKenna.